Manchester United are on the cusp of becoming one of the WSL’s best teams but points dropped as a result of conceding late goals is now threatening them with falling short in the hunt for Champions League football for the second season in a row.
United looked like they had three points wrapped up against West Ham on a wet night in east London this week, only to concede at a corner deep into stoppage time.
It was very much a case of two points dropped as, by that point in the game, United had enjoyed the better chances and a greater amount of meaningful possession.
What the result means is the race for the WSL’s third and final Champions League place is even closer than before. Manchester City picked up a win earlier on Wednesday evening to move into fourth place and reduce the gap to just three points.
Should they win their game in-hand, City would be level on points with United with only a slightly inferior goal difference keeping them out of the top three – the margins could hardly be any tighter.
Gareth Taylor and City are determined to put the pressure on in the final stretch: “We're always trying to push, move up the table after our initial problems we had at the beginning of the season. Everyone's striving to be in those places.”
The buffer that United had prior to these midweek fixtures, which would have afforded them to go into the final game of the season against Chelsea in May perhaps only needing a draw to secure third place had they won all of their other remaining fixtures, has now disappeared.
Conditions were tough in east London. The weather didn’t help either side, while United saw Maria Thorisdottir become a late absentee to join fellow centre-backs Aoife Mannion and Millier Turner as unavailable. Katie Zelem had to fill in, which had a knock-on effect on the team’s structure, while key midfielder Hayley Ladd remained out due to a knock suffered playing for Wales last month.
There was clear disappointment as Ella Toone and manager Marc Skinner both faced the cameras after the final whistle.
"We acquitted ourselves well until that last moment, but we’ve had Covid, we’ve had injuries, we’ve had our captain willing to go in at centre half, and West Ham are very physical so it’s a game we had to dig in,” Skinner reflected, referring to the enforced absences and late reshuffle.
“It’s about recruiting in the future so we don’t get into this position [being short of players]. The injuries we’ve got, half of them weren't even from playing with us – it was international duty. But no excuses, we’ve got to defend that set-piece better.
“They’re showing togetherness, resilience and all the things I’m asking. Sometimes the result doesn’t go for you, but as a group they’ve shown everything they can, bar getting the result.”
Toone lamented: “These are the games we probably should be taking three points from. We know we’ve got a lot to play for and if you look at the performance, I thought we played really well.
“We’re a family and we stick together always. Zel was out of position, but that just shows the character we've got and we’ll all do a job wherever we’re put. We need to use [10 days without a game] wisely to get a few players back and recharged.”
The most disappointing thing for United fans is that seeing their team pegged back and dropping points late in games has been a repeated pattern this season. As many as eight points have now gone begging after losing a lead in the final 15 minutes of four different games.
United drew 1-1 with Tottenham and Everton in consecutive weeks in November, as a result of a stoppage time goal from Ria Percival and a 76th minute strike from Simone Magill respectively.
They were on course for a famous win against Arsenal in February until an early goal from Alessia Russo was cancelled out by Stina Blackstenius with just over 10 minutes left on the clock – the equaliser came shortly after Arsenal had also been reduced to 10 players because of a red card.
Against West Ham, the equaliser didn’t arrive until the 93rd minute, but it still came.
United are capable of blowing teams away, as shown in 5-0 demolitions of Aston Villa and Birmingham. They have also scored three or more in games against Leicester (twice), Reading and Tottenham, yet haven’t won a WSL game by only goal at all so far this season.
The ability to grind out 1-0 wins is a real skill in football that will often divide the best from the rest at the end of a campaign, but holding onto a 1-0 lead has been beyond United in 2021/22. They could be up to eight points better off by now had they been able to – and four or even two of those extra points that have slipped from their grasp could have made a huge difference come May.
Fans, players and staff alike will be praying it doesn’t prove costly.
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